Dear Ashford Mamelodi - Once again we're children with no name

February 17, 1998. A lacklustre crowd of about 500 finds shade in the 15, 000 seater municipal stadium of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Continental governing body CAF lines up Danish Kim Milton Niesen to officiate the much anticipated clash between rivals Morocco and Egypt.

Egypt arrived in West Africa on the back of a season to forget. The Pharoahs failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup and saddled with a horde of aging stars dating back to Italia ’90 World Cup. Hany Ramzy was at the twilight of his career. Hossam Hasan had fewer goals in him. Wins against Mozambique and Zambia secured a berth in the quarter finals. Next up, a dead rubber fixture against Morocco.

The Atlas Lions and the Pharoahs played a goalless draw for 89 minutes. Egypt were winning the group. But football is played for 90 minutes. In that last minute of normal time, the iron defence blinked and conceded its only goal of the tournament – an impeccable bicycle kick by legend Mustapha Hadji. The goal took Morocco to the summit of the group, and a quarter final clash with defending champions South Africa who came second to Ivory Coast in Group C. Ephraim Matsilela Sono’s Bafana Bafana beat the Moroccans.

Football is a game of names!

Every fanatic boasts a once off beyond belief act of footballing Gods smiling on fruits of splendid execution. Hadji’s goal was one such moment. From June 21 to July 19, 2019 fans across the continent will be transported down memory lane when the global unifier serves unforgettable thrillers.

The biennial tournament has moved from January to June to avoid clashing with the World Cup. The number of participating teams is up from 16 to 24, providing once peripheral nations with an opportunity to lay a mark.

Namibia, at risk of missing out had Mozambique won against Guinea-Bissau, scrapped through in second place in their qualifying group courtesy of a late equaliser denying Mozambique victory. Post-match videos have shown dejected Namibian players following a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Zambia screaming in extreme jubilation upon realising that Mozambique had failed to win. 

South Africa, Zimbabwe and the DRC are other Southern African power houses making a return. President John Magufuli rewarded the Tanzanian players and technical team with pieces of land as tokens of appreciation for qualifying for the masterpiece in Egypt. This was additional to the initial promise of US$ 5000 promised by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa.

Egypt were crowned emergency hosts beating South Africa following a decision to strip troubled Cameroon of the hosting rights. Delays in infrastructural preparations in Cameroon necessitated the change of venue. South Africa were seen as likely beneficiaries once again, having hosted under similar circumstances the 2014 edition in place of Libya.

Good fences make good neighbours. There is abundant joy in neighbouring South Africa. A commoner in the SADC region stands a better chance of seeing Beyonce, Rihanna or Lauryn Hill than their counterpart say in Central Africa. When the 2010 global showpiece came to next door neighbour, many Batswana drove across to see their stars in a World Cup.

The 2019 AFCON is double jeopardy. Sadly Botswana will join 30 other African federations to either cheer or jeer while glued to television sets. We remain children of a lesser god and with no names. And Egypt is far. The Zebras finished bottom of Group I, losing five games and earning a draw against Burkina Faso. This has to be the worst showing for a country which pulled off a 2012 qualification in magnificent fashion and without losing a game. What could have gone wrong?

Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan has shown that wealthier countries tend to be sportier. Models go further to argue that population figures and participation rate also contribute to future success of nations. Many successful nations have also closed the gap on losing talented players that slip through scouting systems.

When realising that Germany’s burly players were struggling against defter teams such as Spain and Brazil, the footballing body led in revamping German clubs’ youth academies. From 2001, youngsters started receiving twice as much training as their counterparts before the revamp.

Emphasis was on creativity and playing with the instinct and imagination of street footballers, this being implemented to complement existing developmental structures. Germany’s dominance from 2006 through to their 2014 World Cup victory was at the expected level of performance owing to upstream improvements.

Football is played widely in the country and creativity harnessed from the dusty pitches where players adorn names of their heroes. Years ago, a colourful administrator called Ashford Mamelodi employed a brilliant technical director called Ben Koufie (MHSRIP). The era of 1991 to 2001 saw the introduction of a developmental team call New Horizons and a feeder under 17 team comprising of Lebogang Moruti and Diphetogo Selolwane. The stellar performance albeit in loss during the 1999 Castle Cosafa encounter against South Africa was consistent and subsequent upsurge in performance was reward for upstream management.

Koufie was also instrumental in nurturing local coaches in Saxton Kowa, David Bright, Stan Tshoswane and the late Banks Panene. The successful era of Serbian Jelusic Veselin owed its success to the initial developmental input of Koufie as envisioned by Mamelodi. Veselin unmasked the title of ‘whipping boys of Africa’.  And like other countries, we were children with names. Mogogi Gabonamong, Modiri Marumo, Ofentse Nato became household names. But something gave along the way.

Perhaps we were an insular audience and failed to appreciate that we are not as good as we wanted to be. While the likes of Mareko Pabalelo (arguably the greatest of all time) and Oris Radipotsane were mesmerising spectators, maybe theirs were performances for the local theatre. Maybe, and just maybe, Uruguay with its small population and punching well above its weight is a rare exceptions which can be successful but with a small population. Like Iceland, one can point to developmental programmes and a culture of football inculcated over time.

Scotland with a population of 5.4 million has 12 teams in its elite league. Township Rollers dominates the current league with mining teams Galaxy and Orapa United a step behind in a 16 team league. Could the Zebras benefit from a reduced number of teams where stiffer competition in the league could result in improved performance at national level? This same argument could extend to the new setup of AFCON, with the risk being a decline in the standard of football at the continental showpiece.

Time has brought us here.  As we watch other nations build up to yet another spectacle, we will be children with no names – once again.

Editor's Comment
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